When do unarmed encounters become deadly force?

In teaching officers to control violent individuals, we need to make some philosophical decisions. First is that an officer’s life is more important than political correctness or potential liability. I was in a class recently where the instructor was teaching the use of an eye gouge when the situation reached the level of deadly force. He called the technique “ocular displacement,” which sounds more politically correct than “eye gouge.”

This political correctness has become a joke. If you are in a fight for your life and cannot get to your weapons, you may be forced to use an eye gouge. When your life is in jeopardy, are you more likely to remember the term “eye gouge” or “ocular displacement” — silly question, yes, but it makes the point.  Furthermore, by even calling the technique “ocular displacement” it could unnecessarily — and incorrectly — lead a jury and/or the public to believe we’re hiding something. 

Secondly, when does an unarmed encounter become deadly force? Most states and jurisdictions define deadly force as: force that is likely to cause death or great bodily injury. Your state’s definition may vary slightly, but this is a generic definition. Does this force need to immediately fit this definition, such as a suspect preparing to fire gun at you? If deadly force needs to be immediate, then how is someone grabbing your holstered firearm deadly force? The reason weapon retention is deadly force is because if the suspect gets your gun from you, he will shoot you. He is not taking it to throw it away. So although not immediate in this case, deadly force is imminent.

Defining Deadly Force
Now, let’s say the suspect throws a roundhouse punch and tries to hit you in the face. Is this deadly force? I understand that some officer/subject factors come into play, but can’t a smaller person knockout or incapacitate a bigger person if they hit the person in the jaw? Even if the suspect does not knock you out or down, do you think he will stop attacking after one punch? One punch may not rise to the level of deadly force, but a barrage of punches at the head may rise to deadly force.

We have to realize that it is not very common for an officer to be attacked by a suspect intent on hurting or killing them. It is more likely the suspect is trying to escape, but we should not be any less prepared to defend ourselves.

In trying to understand how officers think, I have asked classes “When does a fight (without a weapon) become deadly force?” Most of the time, the answer involves the officer losing, being exhausted, or having no other option. Although this would justify the use of deadly force, it may be too late. By the time we are losing or exhausted it may be too late. We need to understand that when a suspect attacks, we need to be fighting not controlling. Most of what is taught in defensive tactics is control techniques or counter techniques to the suspect’s resistance. A suspect that is trying to hurt us is not resisting, he is attacking. Few systems deal effectively with this type of suspect.

Blended Disciplines
A third change we need to make is in teaching force disciplines. Why do we still have firearms instructors and defensive tactics instructors instead of use of force instructors? I understand that the fundamentals of firearms skills and defensive tactics skills need to be taught separately, but once learned; students need to be in “using force” classes or “violent encounter resolution” courses. By keeping this training separate, officers may not understand how and when to use deadly force unless the suspect has a gun or knife.

Typically, most firearms instructors teach everything you need to know when your gun is out of your holster. Most defensive tactics instructors teach how to control suspects when they resist. Based on these teaching methods, who teaches to use deadly force when the officer is on his back, fighting for his/her life and losing? I think we are making progress in this area, but few instructors teach how to draw a firearm while someone is on top of you trying to punch, strike, choke or disarm you.

Firearms instructors may say that it is a defensive tactics issue since the officer is physically engaged with the suspect. Defensive tactics instructors may try to teach how to counter or escape the suspect, saying if deadly force is needed, the firearms guys will teach those techniques. Each instructor will say it’s the other instructor’s area of training. As a result, this and many transitional force needs are being overlooked. This leads to the officers trying to find a solution while being attacked.

By making these philosophical changes in our training, we can instill the proper mindset in our officers.  Officers are being injured and killed at an alarming rate this year. We need to give them the skills to defend themselves. 

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